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A Certain Ambiguity

this book on literary, philosophical or mathematical grounds (however, read on). The result is more of a novelty than a novel, and the authors ambitions Reviewed by Danny Calegari seem more grandiose than grand. Structurally, the book is sound, and even innovative. Numerous hisA Certain Ambiguity (A Mathematical Novel) torical and ctional strands are played out, and the Gaurav Suri & Hartosh Singh Bal literary device of switching back and forth between Hardcover, Princeton University Press narrative, newspaper excerpt, transcripted dialogue, US $ 27.95, 281 pages diary entry and so forth does a good job of organizing and integrating these strands. ISBN-13:978-0-691-12709-5 The main disappointment is the disparity between In A negative review of negative reviews ([6]), the potential sophistication and depth of the subDoron Zeilberger contends that (a)nyone who ject matter, and the unremarkable depths to which wastes his time writing a review of a book that he Suri and Bal plumb it. Easiest to criticize (and least or she dislikes, is a frustrated mathematician, who serious, in my opinion) is the cursory investigation has an axe to grind, and just enjoys being mean. of the mathematics. We are led through the usual Writing a novel, especially a novel with serious pedestrian examples of sets which are in bijection to philosophical aims, is not easy, and Suri and Bal proper subsets (the real line and an open interval, have made a serious attempt. They have chosen an the positive integers and the squares), Cantors diambitious and signicant theme the story of the agonal argument that for any set S the power set gradual discovery and development of non-standard P (S ) has greater cardinality than S , and so on. Iraxioms for geometry (hyperbolic geometry) and for ritatingly, there are some minor goofs even in the set theory (undecidability of the Continuum Hypoth- exposition of such basic material. In order to disesis), and the implications for epistemology. This prove the existence of a bijection of a particular set theme reveals itself through the story of a young man A = {c, , a, ?, #, q, t, . . . } with P (A), the authors called Ravi, who by chance takes a liberal arts mathe- instead start to give a partial bijection of A with matics undergraduate course at Stanford. The topic P (P (A)) of the course is innity, and Ravis intuitions and c {?, a}, {q } naive notions are sharpened by an exposure to ideas such as cardinality, power sets, and so forth. At the {c, a}, {#, ?, }, . . . same time, Ravi stumbles on evidence of a surprisa {} ing episode in the life of his deceased grandfather Vijay, and by hunting through newspaper clippings and so on. Actually, I assume this is what they are and court transcripts, comes to learn about a paral- doing; the notation makes it unclear exactly what lel formative experience his grandfather underwent at set the range is supposed to be. However, in the next a young age. Ravis gradual discovery of the subtle paragraph, the confusion is compounded by the asand indirect nature of mathematical and historical re- sertion that the element c is mapped to the subsets ality is interspersed with (fabricated) diary entries {?, a}, {q }, and so c does not occur in the set it is by such historical gures as Pythagoras, Bolyai and mapped into (p. 171). Set or sets? If the authors Cantor. cannot get basic things right, at least they can euloI nd the premise of this book fascinating, and gize them: (f)rom my current perch in retrospective am excited by the idea of a simultaneous exami- adulthood I consider Cantors proof about power sets nation of these issues from historical, scientic and to be one of the agship creations of the human race. psychological viewpoints. I therefore regret (at the We have thought nothing more elegant or powerful, risk of arousing Zeilbergers spleen) that despite nd- only dierent (p. 170). If perch doesnt make you ing some things to like here, I cannot recommend wince, the contrast between this encomium and the 1

subsequent muddle will. There is inconsistent notation (the power set of A is P [A] at one point, and [A] later on, and then nally P (A)) and confusing exposition of elementary theorems in plane geometry. And for the reader who already has some familiarity with mathematics, there is boredom. Mathematically speaking, there is nothing here which is not already in every other popular or informal account of non-Euclidean geometry or the Continuum Hypothesis. All the high points are hit, like a tour bus doing Europe in seven days. Tangible examples of negative curvature in nature (lettuce leaves, seaweed) or sewing (pleats) are missing here; instead we read a newspaper account of an expedition to measure the eect of gravity on light rays. At one point, Nico the course instructor declares Ive read some things about this but I dont understand it fully, so Im not going to talk about it (p. 222). One gets the impression that the authors have taken a dierent position. There is a lot of wae about the implications of the work of G odel and Cohen, but no discussion of what they actually did. Mathematics in this book is a strut on which a range of philosophical opinions are propped up. Perhaps in reaction to this, I was provoked into reading something more substantial about the mathematics of the Continuum Problem. To the non-specialist like myself, I can recommend Set theory and the Continuum Problem by Smullyan and Fitting ([3]), or Woodins pair of articles which appeared in the Notices ([5]). The philosophical ambitions of the novel are more o-putting. In a broad sense, the novel preaches a kind of relativism in which truth is provisional and relative to a set of axioms which are accepted on some unknown basis. Further, there is an important distinction between the consistency of a theory and the question of whether that theory accurately models some phenomenon under discussion. Fine. A page and a half is devoted to a token comparison of several schools of thought on the interpretation of mathematical knowledge, e.g. Platonism, formalism, constructivism, quasi-empiricism, but the real target is elsewhere. The subplot revolving around Vijay is a sustained eort to equate faith in God with a mathematicians belief in absolute mathematics (p. 258). In this subplot, opposite (but apparently sym2

metric) points of view are taken up by Vijay and by Judge John Taylor. The independence of the parallel postulate is taken to undermine Vijays initial position that the Christian belief in the authority of the Bible is illogical and has no place in America, the land of rationality and objectivity (p. 51). Leaving aside the question of whether a published professional number theorist working in 1919 could be unaware of the existence of a consistent theory of nonEuclidean geometry, there is no man in this argument who is not a straw man. I was irritated on behalf of mathematicians and theists alike by their banal and predictable interchanges. Ultimately, Vijays position is undermined when he discovers that the selfevident parallel postulate may not correctly describe nature after all. Judge Taylor undergoes a similar examination of his faith. That night I let myself see the world as an atheist must: a desolate planet occupied by people who had abandoned themselves to amoral meaninglessness he writes (pp. 248-249). As for the axiomatic method, we get the following platitude: (a)s long as (a man) is true to some core beliefs, he cant go too far wrong. Which starting point is true is not something we humans can make much progress on (p. 255). Bleagh. The best one can say about this bit of homespun wisdom is that it has the virtue of being hopelessly naive about something important. From the Habermas-Lyotard debate (see [1] for an introduction) to the Sokal hoax ([4]), to recent atheist manifestos on the bestseller lists (e.g. [2]) the question of foundations for intellectual thought and especially for intellectual debate has never been more critical or urgent. Never mind. Turning to the literary dimensions of the work, I am compelled to say that the prose is usually workmanlike, and the main characters attitudes are generally sophomoric. But at least in this domain there are parts of the novel worth enjoying. The description of Ravis emotional state as he lights his grandfathers funeral pyre is delicate and moving. And the story of his ambivalent quest to join the rm of Goldman-Sachs is compellingly factual (and, given the background of one of the authors, one suspects factually correct) and concrete. The character of Nico is sympathetic and admirable, and mainly by a process of tactful omission (from the lower pitch of his

voice I got that he didnt really want to debate his beliefs with me (p. 157)) is made to seem wise and generous. The narrative is well-plotted, dynamic and compelling, and rarely drags. There is even a latent love interest. I found it easy to start reading this book, and to keep on reading. While some of the ctitious diary entries are somewhat unconventional (e.g. Cantors journal entry in which he records his wife saying You are a huggable bear, Georg (p. 105)), one can read these in the playful spirit in which they are oered without taking oense. The book plausibly succeeds somewhere at the interface of entertainment and journalism. The reader with no prior interest in mathematics or philosophy may nd these aspects of the book at their level, and be drawn in by the entertainment which the book provides to a fascinating subject whose rewards and subtleties the book points to even if it does not illustrate them.

[1] M. B erub e, Whats Liberal about the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and Bias in Higher Education, W. W. Norton 2006 [2] S. Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, Knopf 2006 [3] R. Smullyan and M. Fitting, Set theory and the Continuum Problem, Oxford Logic Guides, 34. Oxford Science Publications, The Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1996 [4] A. Sokal and P. Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals Abuse of Science, Picador 1999 [5] H. Woodin, The Continuum Hypothesis, Parts I and II, Notices AMS, 48, no. 6, pp. 567576 and no. 7, pp. 681690 [6] D. Zeilberger, A negative review of negative reviews, zeilberg/Opinion63.html